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April 2021 saw Rolex reveal its latest novelties, including a watch that no one expected: the ref 124273 bi-metal 36mm Explorer. Commentators offered explanations, one of the most compelling being a piece of analysis by the professor of economics at Eastern Connecticut State University, Brendan Cunningham, who, in his blog “Horolonomics”, suggested that the addition of gold where none had been before was a strategy to keep Rolex’s expensive in-house foundry ticking over. In a steel-obsessed world, this would prevent the gold-producing workforce from going idle.
Taking a longer view, however, this quirky release can be seen as a heritage move, although the brand does not promote it as such. Rolex has a long history of producing steel and gold sports watches and, going back to the 1930s, the watches that later evolved into the Explorer line appeared in bi-metal form. In contemporary watch sizing, the 36mm case of the 124273 is a notable step down, possibly another reference to the more diminutive Explorer ancestors, the Oyster Perpetuals. These antecedents were not only small, but in the 1930s they housed the new-fangled self-winding “perpetual” movements – accommodating the winding rotor under a highly domed screw-down case back. No wonder these became known in collecting circles as “Bubblebacks”.